A Wrinkle in Conviction: Ava DuVernay, Black Celebrity, and the Manipulation of Revolutionary Aesthetic

Home Culture and Entertainment A Wrinkle in Conviction: Ava DuVernay, Black Celebrity, and the Manipulation of Revolutionary Aesthetic

Ava DuVernay is hedging her bets, looking to portray herself as both pop culture educator and blameless conversant in a larger, more complicated discussion.

I stopped being disappointed by Black celebrities a while ago. I think it was a long time coming, but it was cemented last year when I saw that RocNation Brunch tweet by Diddy talking about how his billionaire friends were going to lead the revolution—refusing to acknowledge their role in staving off actual revolutionary action. From then on, it became more and more obvious that there was a harsh difference in genuinely liberatory rhetoric and the casual promotional version of that same rhetoric. 

Your favorite celebrities say “Black Spending Matters,” and whether or not they believe this isn’t the point. They’ll make you believe it anyway. Whether it’s Jay-Z making a T-shirt deal with the NFL after their blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and announcing we’ve now “moved past kneeling” or Janelle Monáe saying we need to put voting booths at Popeye’s restaurants around the country, they are all desperate for this attention.

So when we hear those prominent voices, it’s important to remind ourselves that these people didn’t get to where they are, didn’t rise to their current status, because of their dedication to their people. They didn’t get to where they are because their revolutionary rhetoric was necessary, a matter of life or death. At the end of the day, a billionaire talking about the plight of the life that they hold in their rearview is little more than an aesthetic, unless they—to use the age-old cliché—put their money where their mouth is. Unfortunately, that’s extremely rare; and, more often than not, we see righteous anger transposed less into action, and more into brand.

Which brings us to Ava DuVernay.

After directing two well-received indie dramas—I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012)—DuVernay burst onto the scene with her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. Riding the remarkable critical wave of that film, she went on to direct 13th—a Netflix documentary discussing how the 13th Amendment ultimately codified a new version of chattel slavery via the US prison industrial complex—and the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which painstakingly details the state-sponsored abuse of the wrongly convicted Central Park Five. In short, DuVernay staked out a career bringing to light the abuses of the United States criminal justice system and the trauma that it inflicts on Black people.

So why, one might ask, would she gleefully endorse former prosecutor and California Attorney General Kamala Harris? Why would she so readily throw all her weight into this specific cause?

Upon Joe Biden’s selection of Harris as his vice presidential pick, DuVernay wrote on Instagram:

“There is no debate anymore. There’s no room for it in my book…Oh but, Kamala did this or she didn’t do that. I hear you. I know. And I don’t care. Because what she DIDN’T DO is abandon citizens in a pandemic, rip babies from their mother’s arms at the border, send federal troops to terrorize protestors, manufacture new ways to suppress Black and Brown votes….So I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity.”

While this sort of thing might be unsurprising coming from your average suburban white Democrat, seeing Ava DuVernay entirely whitewash Harris’ almost comically draconian tenure is jarring—at least before we reckon with the reality of Black elites’ true allegiance. This is a woman who sent trans women to men’s prisons and denied them life-saving gender affirmation surgery; who kept prisoners past their sentences in order to bolster prison labor; who not only put in place a law that would imprison poor parents whose children missed school, but laughed about it on camera, boasting about her letterhead.

Of course, to DuVernay: “It doesn’t matter.”

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But in many ways it does. At this point, it’s a sickening cliché that entertainment and politics share the same exploitative, manipulative spirit. Just as Kamala Harris explained her debate confrontation with Joe Biden as merely a matter of performance, Ava DuVernay’s sudden pivot feels like its own type of performance art—the intense focus on the prominence of the voice above what the voice actually says.

That movement, that flight, away from consistent messaging is both an enraging and unsurprising feature of capitalist Black discourse, as well as a bone-chilling reality that defines the sacrifices that must be made to become a “woke” voice promoted by corporate interests.

Ultimately, this illuminates a disconcerting harmony between DuVernay and Harris. These women move in similar ways in that they both use the pain and suffering of Black people as a sort of springboard for their success. The only difference between the two, really, is where they ended up. DuVernay mined it and used it to leverage a lucrative entertainment career, while Harris managed to use it to her political advantage. 

This disturbing cooperation also elucidates another truth: the lie of solidarity among the most prominent is far more present than anyone would like to admit. In order to gain any sort of “mainstream” dignity, Black celebrities and politicians alike must be ready to gleefully launder the language of liberation into safe, digestible, sellable bits.

Pop culture, superhero, subscribe to Disney+, Netflix, Hulu horseshit. To thrive in an anti-Black world, you must readily abandon any concrete or material goals in favor of producing an ephemeral, congratulatory dream of change; one that will solidify some undetermined day, but not this time. The anti-Black world demands that Blackness be the highest form of unrespectability, so anyone who dares carve out a space within the system must be ready to turn their backs on it. Whatever ties to the Black community you started out with must be severed the earliest chance you get.

You can only be Black in name, Black as far as flimsy ideas of liberal representation will allow. Which is why people like former president Barack Obama, for instance, can call mainly Black protesters “thugs” and say, explicitly, that he was “not the president of Black America” and still be lauded as usher to an era of racial progress. “Black excellence” is not a liberatory concept, and cultural prominence does not automatically ensure that an individual will use their position to promote unfettered liberation.

Ultimately, that prominence and status is something that most who achieve it will work to protect, even at the expense of the messaging that brought them to the forefront. Harris herself has echoed Obama’s sentiments, promising her support for Black communities will not be unconditional, nor will she consistently associate herself with the needs of that identity, even if the achievement of her title as a stellar example of Black excellence rests on her willingness to weaponize that same identity when convenient or politically profitable. That she seems to oscillate in and out of her Blackness based on the needs of the moment only reinforces this. 


Looking back at 13th—which demonstrates the inescapability of Blackness when it comes to treatment by politicians and law enforcement—this craven gesturing feels all the more superficial and, elementally, deceitful. DuVernay’s willingness to launder this reality through her own reputation as a top-level voice, calling for a more critical look at the harsh realities of the American state seems to demonstrate, almost gleefully, the fundamentally tissue-thin nature of what it means to be uplifted by capital as a so-called liberatory voice.

Ava DuVernay will likely try to absolve herself. “13th is simply a primer,” she might argue in the face of criticism. But if 13th is meant to inform the uninformed, to educate those who haven’t taken a hard look at the racist undergirding of the criminal justice system, then its failures are more egregious, as is DuVernay’s wanton hypocrisy and opportunism. For those to whom DuVernay presents her work as a gateway, her endorsement of Kamala Harris (despite the former California Attorney General’s violent policies) becomes an allowance to look past actions that have done material and measurable harm to poor Black individuals and families. In 13th  DuVernay refuses to mention how women, especially trans women, are treated in prison, and omits Joe Biden’s key role in the 1994 crime bill, which was otherwise covered in intense detail. These blindspots will look less like subjects whose complexity is glossed over for the sake of a 101 education and more like intentional exclusions, a doctrine that makes space for self-promotional bullshit when it’s inconvenient to take the perpetrators to the mat.

This absolution, this refusal of responsibility, is less a chance to encourage further reading and more opportunity to stymie further critical, liberatory, and empowered denunciations of the system. In this scenario, DuVernay is hedging her bets, looking to portray herself as both pop culture educator and blameless conversant in a larger, more complicated discussion. Blocking critics on Twitter while extolling an advocate of the very traumas off which she made her mainstream career enthrones her in a sort of violent hypocrisy that goes beyond the need for prominence in the social justice discourse. 

But this isn’t just about Ava Duvernay. We’ve seen Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Regina King, and more join in the chorus, ripping away from many Black people the sense that participants of the art  presumably made to embody the Black struggle even care, materially, about that struggle at all. There are certainly a number of justifications that could be levied, an onslaught of defenses and rationalizations brought to the fore. Unfortunately, the ultimate truth—that seems all too ready to stand nakedly and brazenly, even mockingly, before us—is that, when the chips are down, the interest of our elites is less in the affirmations they project through their art, but more in the messages they promote through their monetary and political influence.

We’re on our own out here, and glossy paper tigers won’t stand around for the fire next time.

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